Dreaming of Florida? We bet there’s white sand beaches, palm trees, and Disney World front and center in all those mind pics — but don’t stop there. Florida has not one, but three national parks, plus national historic preserves, marine sanctuaries, and monuments. Cool, right? Of course, these protected lands still have plenty of beautiful beaches, but they throw in some swamps, tree-enveloped trails, wetlands, tiny islands, salt marshes, and even shipwrecks — just for fun.
For an outdoor vacation like none other, take a national park road trip in Florida with our handy travel guide.
About an hour’s drive from happenin’ Miami Beach, Biscayne sits off the coast of Homestead. Hope you like color, because the park’s aquamarine waters, emerald islands, and coral reefs provide some colorful sightseeing. Biscayne is 95 percent water, which means endless space for fishing, boating, and kayaking.
If you’re an experienced kayaker, cross the 7-mile stretch from Biscayne Bay to Elliott or Boca Chita Keys. Head to the top of the historic lighthouse at Boca Chita Key to take in views of the islands, the ocean, and even the Miami skyline. When your paddling arms need a rest, take a load off on the beach at Elliott Key, or cool off in the clear, shallow waters.
The park is also home to a wide variety of birds, animals, and marine life. On land, thick mangrove forests provide cover for a bunch of species. In the water, swim with manatees, dolphins, and river otters, or go on a crustacean, fish, or sea turtle hunt. You won’t believe the view of the coral reefs from one of the snorkeling and scuba diving glass-bottomed boats.
Head out 70 miles west of Key West to check out Dry Tortugas National Park, the southernmost park in the national park system. Like Biscayne, the area is mostly water, but a boat or seaplane can get you to one of the seven small islands. Don’t miss Fort Jefferson, one of the country’s largest 19th-century forts for a little history and a lot of sightseeing on the self-guided walking tour with 360-degree ocean views.
Remember all that clear blue water? Well, dive in and scuba to the Windjammer shipwreck, or take the kids snorkeling among the soft corals and tropical fish in the Little Africa area. For a can’t-miss look, snorkel along the Fort Jefferson moat wall at night to see tropical fish, coral, starfish, and other underwater life when it’s quiet and calm. Looking for more excitement? Try geocaching, kayaking, or paddle boarding.
Tip: Don’t look for restaurants or food services at Dry Tortugas. Take your own meals, water, and plenty of road trip snacks!
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Who said detours are a bad thing? Veer on over to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to win that debate. This marine sanctuary protects 2,900 square nautical miles of water from south of Miami to Dry Tortugas (excluding the park). It’s home to more than 6,000 species of marine life, topped off with primo scuba diving along Shipwreck Trail.
“Shipwreck sites vary from easy dives in shallow water to dives of 100 feet or more,” says Gena Parsons of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. “An underwater guide is also available for each site and includes history, a site map, and information about marine life.”
Get there by car, plane, or boat to see the world’s third largest barrier reef. “The coral reef is a mere 5 to 7 miles offshore and offers a plethora of sea life, whether you are fishing, snorkeling, diving, or just gazing into the turquoise waters,” says Parsons.
A trip to the Everglades is a must if you’re road tripping in Florida. After all, you’ve got three ways to get into the 1.5 million acres of wetlands in south Florida. You could start at the Gulf Coast Visitor Center and take a boat tour through the mangrove islands and waterways known as Ten Thousand Islands. From the Shark Valley Visitor Center, rent a bike and explore the 15-mile path to the observation tower for a full-circle view of the park. Kayak exploration? You bet! Rent one from Flamingo Marina or the Gulf Coast Visitor Center.
Gators? You have a good chance of spotting a few near Oasis Visitor Center. Just take a stroll on the boardwalk circling the lagoon — and keep your eyes open. (Don’t get too close!) From Flamingo Visitor Center, you can hike the Mahogany Hammock Trail and look for crocodiles lounging in the area.
Tip: Check the park’s website for possible campground, trail, and other closures due to repairs or weather ahead of your arrival.
Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve
A little farther north near Jacksonville, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve is one of the last unspoiled wetlands on the Atlantic Coast — an amazing feat since it’s only 10 minutes from the city.
Looking to keep things dry? Head to the Theodore Roosevelt Area to hike through hardwood forests, wetlands, and scrub vegetation. Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve park ranger Emily Palmer says to take the green-marked trail for canopied trails and oyster shell mounds left by the Timucua people, who lived in the area when the Europeans arrived in the 16th century. “They ate a lot of shellfish and oysters. Over time, these big piles accumulated,” says Palmer. “We ask that people leave them because they are a preserved and protected archaeological site.”
Want to see more wildlife? Take a kayak and paddle along the calm waters, and maybe do a little kayak fishing on Horseshoe Creek. If you’re interested in southern history, stop by American Beach, a former African-American beach during the days of segregation.
From coral to crocodiles and from swampy marshes to warm oceans, you can find more than enough ways to explore the outdoors in Florida’s national parks. Go ahead! Give it a try! Visit our Pinterest for more road tripping travel tips.